Making the Impossible Possible

  • onOctober 27, 2015
  • Vol.29 Autumn 2015
  • byKim Kyung-uk

A few years ago I took part in an international creative writing program held at an American university. A variety of events were planned, including public readings, and there was even an opportunity to meet students who were studying world literature. As I wrapped up my short presentation on writing novels, one student asked me what I thought were the differences between American and Korean novels. I took a moment to contemplate my answer to this unexpected question and replied, “American novels are written in English and Korean novels in Korean.” The laughter that erupted from the students surprised me. It seems they thought I was joking.

I am fortunate enough to have had a short story collection translated that will shortly be published in the US. The title of the collection is God Has No Grandchildren. However, I was told that the current editor wanted to change the title. The editor’s reasoning was that readers might have the misconception that these were “God Stories.” This was a wholly unanticipated response since it is a collection of short stories and not religious fiction. In spite of this, I readily agreed with the editor’s suggestion. I’m not trying to say that I am a particularly magnanimous person, nor that as an author I am far from being stubborn. Truthfully, I had no grounds for argument because what Americans think of when they hear the word “God” and what Koreans think are completely different. Just like how in one of the short stories in that collection, the cheer for the Korean National Soccer team, “Be the Reds!” could be misread by an English speaking reader to be the Manchester United cheer, “Come on, the Reds!” The most important thing was to avoid the unfortunate possibility of the book being placed in the Religious Fiction corner in American bookstores.

There was once a big to-do surrounding the Korean title of a famous hardboiled American novel’s Hollywood adaptation. The original English title was The Postman Always Rings Twice, and the subject “postman” should have been translated into Korean as “jipbaewon.” But, due to fierce opposition by Korean postal workers, the problematic word ended up being the English written in Korean pronunciation as “poseuteumaen.” Without translating the subject, the title was an incomplete and strange translation.

The reasoning behind the switch to Konglish was that because the plot was about a love affair, it might have planted negative thoughts about postmen into audience’s minds, but I found two points on which to doubt this claim. First, the problematic movie’s plot had absolutely nothing to do with postmen. As someone who writes novels, I’ve learned that you must select your titles well, but I think that when you’re racking your brain for a title, you have to think as far ahead as to how it would be translated as well. Secondly, if the switch really was for the sake of postmen’s reputations, then shouldn’t they have removed the word from the title altogether? They possibly thought that it was enough as long as it wasn’t written in Korean. In the end, that movie’s title was unable to overcome Korean society’s cultural peculiarity that makes it regard the reputations of professions with such importance. If this cultural difference had been considered, a complete translation would have been seen as futile from the start.

This thought came to me suddenly when I was watching special agents completing seemingly impossible missions in a Hollywood blockbuster. Isn’t the most important aspect of these exaggerated heroic tales their impossibility? Aren’t the impossible scenes where the main character climbs a skyscraper with his bare hands or remains underwater for a time unbearable to the lungs really just supplementary to the grandiose mission to save the world? In the same vein, the most important part of translating isn’t the final product, but the act of translating itself and the impossibility of interpreting culture. So just like in those spy movies, the translator will have to burn the message (the source text) when they are assigned a mission. They must destroy the original and create something new. What makes the impossible mission possible, what strikes down the preposterous, is not the special agent’s loyalty nor their rule book, but their adaptability and originality.

At the international creative writing program I attended, I took part in a panel called “State of the World Novel Today.” When it was my turn I said, “I’m watching the World Series right now. Since baseball only uses one language, I can enjoy it without any interpretation. However, I don’t want all the novels in the world to be written in a single language. This is because it’s the responsibility of the novel to be the champion of diversity.” That’s what I believe. Impossibility may be the fate of translation, but it is also essential for the existence of novels. For the impossible mission of novels is to make something that is not truly happening seem as if it really is. No matter what language they write in, novelists are forever pushing a boulder up a mountain.

If I had the chance to answer that American college student’s question again, I would say the same thing: “The difference between American and Korean novels? American novels are written in English and Korean novels in Korean.” Of course, this time I wouldn’t forget to add, “I’m not joking.” 


by Kim Kyung-uk

Author's Profile

Kim Kyung-uk debuted in 1993 with the novella Outsider published in the quarterly review Writer’s World. His short story collections are Is Leslie Cheung Really Dead? (2005), Risky Reading (2008), God Has No Grandchildren (2011), and Young Hearts Never Grow (2014). His novels are Like a Fairytale (2010) and What Is Baseball? (2013). He won both the Hyundae Literary Award and the Dong-in Literary Award.